Braggin’ Writes Revisited
Propelled by Brooklyn’s drill movement and wave-making upstarts, both the energy and the spotlight are coming back to New York.
Words: Stacy-Ann Ellis
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
A new movement is brewing in New York, and everybody knows it. From Queens to Brooklyn, The Bronx to Manhattan, and even Staten Island, the presence of a new New York rap faction is here. It’s safe to say that rap out of New York has turned up a lot over the past few years. Cardi B joined the company of international behemoths like A$AP Rocky with the A$AP Mob and French Montana, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie’s melodies permeated the air, and the likes of Young M.A and Dave East were putting on for their respective boroughs. Even controversial 6ix9ine was churning out hits that blasted from car speakers all over the city.
But something about the newest of New York feels different. Within two years, there's been a burst of rap talent repping the Big Apple across the boroughs: Lil Tjay, Lil Tecca, 22Gz, Melii, Justin Rarri, Sheff G, J.I. the Prince of NY, Smoove’L, Sleepy Hallow, Fivio Foreign, Abby Jasmine and the late Pop Smoke, to name a few. And let’s not forget about Upstate, where Pardison Fontaine and Griselda Records’ Westside Gunn, Conway and Benny The Butcher are putting on for Newburgh and Buffalo, respectively. From sing-song hip-hop melodies to hard-hitting bars, these artists have eyes and ears in their direction.
Queens artist Tecca, 17, with over 13 million Spotify streams to his name, has skyrocketed to fame for his carefree, melodic flow on songs like “Ransom” and his debut effort, We Love You Tecca, which debuted in the top 5 of the Billboard 200 in 2019. With co-signs from Meek Mill and Tory Lanez, Harlem rapper Melii, 22, represents for the ladies as she moves seamlessly between rapping and singing with songs like the A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie-assisted “HML” (over 22 million Spotify streams and counting) and braggadocious “Icey.” Multiplatinum songs are synonymous with Bronx rapper Lil Tjay, 18, who rose from the SoundCloud trenches and elevated to streaming success with his harmonized pain, earning a No. 5 Billboard 200 spot for his 2019 debut LP, True 2 Myself. Seventeen-year-old Bronx rhymer Justin Rarri is another hip-hop neophyte with a euphonious delivery as heard on his streaming hit “W2LEEZY.”
Over in Brooklyn, the new New York wave was imminent last year, particularly at functions soundtracked by Pop Smoke’s brooding 2019 smash “Welcome to the Party,” a street anthem turned radio hit that has yet to lose its luster. However, the Canarsie, Brooklyn drill rapper, one of the scene’s leading faces, was murdered before he got the chance to see its peak. On Feb. 19, Pop, born Bashar Barakah Jackson, was shot and killed during a home invasion in Los Angeles. He was 20 years old. His death rocked both his fans and hip-hop peers, who made clear that they’d hold onto his impact and further propel the legacy of his music. (50 Cent quickly announced plans to executive produce and complete Pop’s debut album, eyeing potential collaborators like Roddy Ricch, Chris Brown, Drake and Post Malone.)
Just nine days after Pop Smoke’s death, his life-size hologram made an appearance in the belly of Paris’ Yard Winter Club, hip-swaying to the snarling intro of his second breakout hit, “Dior.” Below the flickering white specter, a jostling crowd roared along, and when the DJ cut away from the chorus, the room thundered with bass that could rival the producer’s original handiwork: “She like the way that I dance/She like the way that I move/She like the way that I rock/She like the way that I woo.” The moment is equally eerie as it is reverent and triumphant. With only two major projects out, Smoke is already receiving treatment reserved for legends. That’s because the masses already saw the potential for him to become one. Pop was one of several burgeoning artists helping to push New York’s musical resurgence into the mainstream.
While BK drill, the nucleus of the movement, may be putting the spotlight back on New York, Rarri is adamant about proving there are also other sounds coming from the Big Apple. “I feel like my purpose is to show New York and the world, whoever is paying attention to New York, that just ’cause that’s the wave, it don’t mean that you gotta follow it to be poppin’ from over there,” the Interscope Records signee shares.
The motley crew of New York’s new wave has racked up millions of YouTube views and Spotify streams between them all, especially those aligning with the city’s growing drill movement, which seems to have found its sweet spot. “For a while, people were trying to bring New York back with the traditional New York sound,” says Brooklyn native Hovain Hylton, a long-tenured music manager, who once managed Troy Ave and is now with Cinematic Music Group. He’s referencing boom bap, which dominated hip-hop’s 1990’s golden age. “Then slowly but surely, Bobby [Shmurda], Rowdy [Rebel] and them turned up a little bit. Having fun music started to shift. Before they went in [to jail], they helped shift the energy back to New York.”
After dominating 2014 with “Hot Nigga” and “Bobby Bitch,” Bobby Shmurda, along with Rowdy Rebel and members of their GS9 crew, were arrested in a drug trafficking sting. In 2016, Shmurda pled guilty to conspiracy and weapons possession. He took the plea deal for a seven-year sentence, including two extra years so that Rebel could get less time. Shmurda’s conditional release date is in December. With fans eagerly awaiting Bobby’s impending release and the drill movement on the rise, Brooklyn is taking it at the moment. “Early last year I started to see the signs,” Joie Manda, EVP at Interscope Records, says of the drill wave. “Just listening to the radio, it feels like it’s definitely permeating from the streets. It doesn’t feel contrived or forced at all. This is the music that these artists are making on their own.”
Driven by menacing production—droning bass, jittering snares, deadpan vocals, no-nonsense disses that ring off like warning shots—drill originated on Chicago’s South Side. Rappers like Lil Durk, Chief Keef, G Herbo, Fredo Santana, Lil Reese, Young Chop, Katie Got Bandz, King Louie and Sasha Go Hard popularized the sound, before songs like Keef’s “Love Sosa” and the Lil Reese-guested, Kanye West-remixed “Don’t Like” helped move it beyond state lines. (In 2012, the aforementioned songs peaked at No. 56 and No. 73 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively.)
In the years that followed, drill traveled across the Atlantic, nestling alongside U.K. grime music (think rappers like Headie One, BandoKay & Double Lz, and Stickz, MDargg and Grizzy of 150). The hip-hop subgenre then migrated to the East Coast once rappers there caught wind of U.K. producers’ drill beats. East London producer 808Melo co-produced Pop Smoke’s 2019 debut mixtape, Meet the Woo, and its 2020 follow-up, Meet the Woo 2. AXL Beats produced both “Suburban,” 22Gz’s 2016 song that arguably put Brooklyn drill on the map, and “No Suburban,” Sheff G’s 2017 equally viral (alleged) response track to 22Gz, as well as Fivio Foreign’s boisterous hood paean “Big Drip.” Even Drake had to jump on one of AXL’s beats with the song “War.”
Brooklyn drill picked up steam nationally within the last two years, but it was bubbling underground for close to four. It’s hard to pinpoint who exactly was responsible for the spark that set it off. Pop Smoke (who, as of press time, was the only New York drill rapper to appear on a Billboard chart) felt his signature growl and lyrical cocksure set it off, but his peers also take responsibility. Flatbush rapper Sheff G, 21, bluntly considers himself the “godfather” and “one of the originators of this drill shit.” 22Gz, 22, who’s also from Flatbush and notably has beef with the aforementioned, claims kingship also. “I started the whole drill music,” he asserts. “I’m not going to say I started it crazy like that, but I was the first artist who made a hot drill song to get millions of views in NYC, in Brooklyn. ‘Suburban’ changed the scene in a major way. It made a whole new style of music.”
Hylton offers some helpful context. “They’re from the same area,” he explains. “You gotta realize, Pop Smoke is from Canarsie. Sheff G is from the 90s. These are places that are separated by like 10, 15 minutes. So, I don’t know who started it, but it’s all from the same area.” Regardless of who started what, these artists all saw an opportunity for gain and chased it.
Arguably, the last time New York commanded the industry was the early to mid-2000s, during the reign of 50 Cent and his G-Unit collective. “When  rose up from the street, it was undeniable,” Manda recalls. To him, Fif’s takeover was an exclamation point after the groundwork already laid by Roc-A-Fella Records, Ruff Ryders, Murder Inc. and The Diplomats. “50 felt like a wave that couldn’t be denied. It didn’t matter what any of the gatekeepers did, what radio at the time did, what record labels did. It was just going to happen.”
According to Nielsen SoundScan, 50’s debut studio album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, was the best-selling album in 2003, with over 6,500,000 copies sold. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and spent 104 weeks on the chart. Then 2005’s The Massacre followed suit to No. 1 and spent 57 weeks on the chart.
That vibe returns in 2020. Hylton points to the new crop’s pursuit of catchy, quotable music. “I think with Pop, and even with Fivio, they’re putting good hooks on these records,” he adds. “Making better songs.” And apparently, it’s relatable, too. Sheff G realized he was making music that many different people could identify with. “A college kid could relate to my music even though I never been to college,” he conveys. “Somebody that’s not in school, a dropout, can relate to my music because I’m a dropout.”
Too bad the city has made it difficult for them to connect on a higher level. In October of 2019, the NYPD banned Casanova, Don Q, Pop Smoke, Sheff G and 22Gz from performing on their stomping grounds, at the inaugural Rolling Loud New York festival, due to “recent acts of violence.” It’s not lost on them that the same resistance drill music was met with in Chicago and the U.K. still remains. At its core, 22Gz explains, it’s still high-level dissing, something woven into the fabric of hip-hop’s DNA. “Rap is rap. Grime is grime. Drill is drill,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s aggression like it’s there. “I don’t think there’s a 50 Cent yet,” he says.
However, despite his absence due to his tragic death, Pop Smoke’s sense of optimism remains. Because of him and his peers, the city’s rap renaissance is closer than we think. New York is still up. “We finna take over,” Pop told XXL, mere weeks before his death. “We finna take over everything. I ain’t gon lie, it’s about to go back to everybody want to come to New York. New York got the baddest females, you know what I’m saying? But New York finna go back to that spot where it’s like the Mecca.”
Empire state of mind personified.
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2020 issue including our Future cover story, in which he speaks on his Life Is Good album, Lil Yachty discusses his new album, Lil Boat 3, and the respect he deserves, Van Jones talks about his love for hip-hop and more.
See Exclusive Photos of Future on a Yacht for XXL Magazine's Spring 2020 Cover Story